My dog weighs just shy of 11 pounds, but barks as if she weighs 90. I've watched as her fierce, high-pitched bark made grown men recoil, lest they further tempt her fury. While she is the sweetest dog once she gets to know you, her violent reaction to meeting someone can be a bit off-putting. We adopted her at five months old, so just after the crucial socialization period up to 4 months old. Because she came into our care just a tad late and she's a naturally vocal breed, we've had to work extra hard to socialize her as she grows into an adult dog.
How to Socialize an Adult Dog
Socializing a dog is the practice of helping to get your dog comfortable in all different kinds of surroundings. Ideally, you want to introduce your dog to as much variety in life as possible during their most impressionable times – between 3 and 12 weeks old. However, not all of us adopt our dogs when they are puppies, but don't worry, with a little patience and a lot of love, there are a number of ways you can socialize an adult dog as well.
How to socialize an adult dog with other dogs
One of the most important areas to socialize your dog in is how to associate with other dogs. For us, this has been the most challenging, because our dog can be protective and defensive around other dogs. You want to get your pup comfortable around other dogs, but be patient, because it can take them awhile to get the hang of it.
First of all, leave the house. Socializing around other dogs will go much better early on if your dog isn't trying to protect their "territory." Second, start by letting your dog simply observe other dogs without getting too close. Keeping a safe distance will help keep your dog more comfortable. You can do this by going to a dog park, but staying outside the fence. Or hanging out along a popular dog walking route. Stay as far away from the other dog as you need to. If your dog starts to react by lunging or barking, calmly walk the other way until your dog calms down.
Create a positive association with other dogs by rewarding your dog with treats. If a dog comes close to your dog or otherwise catches your dog's attention, give your dog a treat. Your dog will eventually start to associate other dogs with something positive. Once your dog seems 100% comfortable seeing dogs from a distance, you can start to move closer. Go only as close as your dog remains calm.
Once your dog seems comfortable, you can start actually going to the do park and interacting with other dogs. Make sure to keep the treats coming, and if your dog gets uncomfortable, move it away from the interaction. This takes time. We've been working with our dog for a year, and she still sometimes has interactions with way too much barking, so be patient.
How to socialize an adult dog with people
While we might think a dog would assume that all humans are alike, the opposite is true. Humans look, smell, and act differently from one another, and our dogs take notice. So while your dog may be great around those she sees often, she may react poorly around strangers. Some dogs also have trouble with children. You'll want to socialize your dog with all kinds of humans, to make sure they know how to keep their cool.
As with other dogs, try to make their associations with other humans positive. When a stranger comes over, give your dog treats as the stranger approaches. One good technique is to give your friend some treats, d have them ignore the dog's behavior while tossing treats. That can help start to associate strangers with rewards. Also, make sure that strange humans let your dog approach them. If your pup wants to maintain a distance, or hide in another room, let them. Being calm and cool yourself and behaving like everything is normal helps your pup learn to react that way, too.
How training classes can help with socialization
One of the major tools we used to work on our dog's socialization was obedience classes. We had to start with private lessons and a fake stuffed dog, because our pup was too reactive around other dogs. But eventually, by learning confidence in her ability to perform tricks and the positive association of treats, she was able to stay calm in a class full of dogs.
Obedience classes teach your dog basic behaviors and tricks, but they also teach them confidence and give you, as their owner, options for how to calm them down. For example, when dogs are overstimulated, using the command "Watch Me" taught in training classes can bring their focus back to you to calm them back down. My dog loves the "touch" and "sit" commands, and I use those regularly out on walks when we encounter something she doesn't like.
How to augment socialization with adult rescue dogs
Rescuing a dog is an amazing experience, but many dogs are already adults when we rescue them. In those cases, you have no control and often no knowledge of how your dog was socialized in that early, crucial period. You'll probably have to make some observations before you can pinpoint exactly what kind of socialization your dog might need. Take note of the dog's body language in different settings. A tucked tail, flat ears, excessive lip licking, and shaking are all signs of a nervous or scared dog.
The best way to address any problems in your new rescue's socialization is by starting small and keeping your interactions short. Use the same principles we've outlined for any other dogs. It may take your dog a little extra time to build confidence. But if you stick to positive reinforcement and have patience, you'll soon have a socialized, well-adjusted dog who will love you all the more for taking the time to make their world happy and comfortable.